Saturday, March 12, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Rauf’s Defense of the Ground Zero Mosque

All of the histrionics provoked by Rep. Peter King's hearings on domestic Islamic radicalism put me in mind of this post from 9/8/10:

Here’s Feisel Rauf in today’s New York Times, defending the Ground Zero Mosque (my emphasis):
“Above all, the project will amplify the multifaith approach that the Cordoba Initiative has deployed in concrete ways for years. Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.

“Our broader mission — to strengthen relations between the Western and Muslim worlds and to help counter radical ideology — lies not in skirting the margins of issues that have polarized relations within the Muslim world and between non-Muslims and Muslims. It lies in confronting them as a joint multifaith, multinational effort.”
Let’s stipulate not only to the sincerity of Rauf’s words, but (counterfactually) that he’s speaking for all American Muslims. How reassured should non-Muslim Americans be if those assumptions turn out to be correct? Should that be enough to disabuse them of the gnawing suspicion that the practice of even moderate Islam isn’t easily reconciled with American civic norms?

Evidently, Rauf's words are good enough to quiet any doubts that Andrew Sullivan has on that score:
“As the far right seems to relish a clash of civilizations, [Rauf’s] op-ed strikes me as so transparently constructive, so evidently in the interests not only of domestic peace but of strategic victory against Jihadist terror that I'm again at a loss to understand why so many have reacted so ferociously to this project. I can see only one way this multi-faith community center is offensive: if you regard the mass murderers of 9/11 to be the true heart of Islam and especially American Islam. I don't. I never have. In fact, the distinction is precisely what we are fighting for. Or have I just lost my mind?”
My normative reflexes are the same as Sullivan’s. Although he’s religious and I’m not, we’re both creatures of a (predominantly Protestant) culture that reflexively understands religious communion as a personal relationship between a believer and God. (“[T]rue and saving religion,” according John Locke, the foremost historical champion of religious toleration, “consists in the inward persuasion of the mind.”) To the extent that’s so, it’s relatively easy to maintain a political regime in which my liberty of conscience can co-exist readily with yours inasmuch as neither of our consciences commands us to get in the other’s way.

But most of the world’s religions aren’t like that; practicing them involves doing things that are inconsistent with the religious and civil interests of other people. Locke may have been among the most advanced thinkers on religious matters in the seventeenth century, but he didn’t believe that a well-ordered society could tolerate Catholicism because the recognition of the quasi-political authority of an institutionalized religious hierarchy from the Pope down to the parish priest was essential to its conscientious practice. As far as Locke could see, a good Catholic had to be a bad citizen in a good state.

Americans didn’t entirely disabuse themselves of Locke’s doubts about Catholicism until John F. Kennedy persuaded the country to elect a Catholic president in 1960. But he did that not by asking Americans to go out of their way to accommodate his religious practice, but by persuading them that American Catholics had already assimilated their own religious practice to the prevailing regime that grew out of religious toleration among Protestant sects. (Insofar as I understand it, Sullivan’s Catholicism embodies that assimilation more faithfully than that of the Catholic hierarchy.)

I’m no authority on Islam, but it sure looks to me that, even in its most moderate forms, it has prominent illiberal political components. I couldn’t begin to tell you how integral those components are to the conscientious practice of Islam. A generation ago, it looked like most Muslim immigrants in western societies weren’t having much trouble adapting their religious practice to the prevailing regimes of religious liberty and toleration. It’s not clear whether their children, or newer arrivals, are willing to bear the same burdens of assimilation (by tolerating pictorial representations of Muhammad or sexually integrated public swimming pools, etc.).

Rauf’s defense of the Ground Zero Mosque doesn’t say anything much about how the burdens of assimilating Muslim-Americans into the American polity should be distributed among Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. But it doesn’t sound like he’s offering any Kennedy-like assurances that it’s the Muslim community’s job to do nearly all the assimilating. What he says is entirely consistent with notion that American Muslims are entitled to re-negotiate the terms of American citizenship so as to make it more hospitable to Muslim religiosity.

Don't ask me how the benefits and burdens of assimilation should be distributed. But it strikes me as wishful thinking to presume that we can get to the right distribution without undergoing a political process that will be a little painful for all concerned.

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